I’VE always enjoyed reading Graeme Dobell’s think pieces. He’s a champion of the Pacific islands in Canberra and notable for his blunt appraisals of Australia’s standing in the region. But I’m not persuaded by the realism of his recent call for ‘the creation of an economic, political and security community’ with Pacific neighbours.
Dobell laments that this concept hasn’t taken off since it was first mooted in the early 2000s. He asks: ‘Do we have the imagination and the will?’
I’m not so sure it’s a matter of will — but rather of Australia’s global strategic interests clashing with our regional obligations. In recent years, successive Australian governments have adopted policies — on trade, decolonisation, climate change and disarmament — that aren’t welcomed by many citizens of neighbouring island nations. Why, then, should they accept a key objective of our 2017 foreign policy white paper: ‘to integrate Pacific countries in the Australian and New Zealand economies and our security institutions’?
On trade, our island neighbours are wary. The two largest island trading partners — Fiji and Papua New Guinea — have both refused to sign the PACER-Plus trade agreement, a central pillar of Australia’s engagement in the region since PACER was first signed in 2001. Many Pacific commentators — including former secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum Noel Levi — have sharply critiqued the final agreement.
What about decolonisation? In 1986, Australia actively supported the re-inscription of New Caledonia on the UN list of non-self-governing territories. In 2013, our government stood back as French Polynesia sought the same support. Instead, small island states like Nauru, Tuvalu and Solomon Islands successfully put forward a resolution on re-inscription at the UN General Assembly. Australia’s strengthening strategic relationship with France — so clearly documented in the latest ASPI Strategy paper — has meant a reduced commitment to decolonisation in the Pacific. Yet the issue won’t go away, as highlighted by New Caledonia’s looming referendum on self-determination and broader debates over political status, from Bougainville to West Papua.
The carbon capture of Australian climate policy by the mining lobby has alienated partners in the region. Neither major party is likely to endorse real action, such as New Zealand’s current push for reform of fossil fuel subsidies (let alone the call by some island leaders to keep coal in the ground). So why would Pacific governments let an Australian-led community determine regional climate policy? As Marshall Islands president Hilda Heine noted last May: ‘Now is not the time to be debating the science, trashing solar power, or building new coal mines. I can assure you it does influence the way Australia is viewed in the Pacific.’
It’s the same for disarmament policy — Canberra seems to be heading in the opposite direction to other Forum member states, including New Zealand.
In July 2017, more than 120 governments voted to adopt a treaty to ban nuclear weapons under international law. They recognised that the humanitarian impact of the use of nuclear weapons is morally unacceptable and that their current alert status represents a significant risk to human security. Fiji, Kiribati, New Zealand, Palau, Samoa, Tuvalu and Vanuatu were among the first states to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (soon joined by larger Asian neighbours, including Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines).
The Turnbull government’s decision to boycott the treaty negotiations was the first time that Australia had ever refused to participate in multilateral disarmament negotiations. Many commentators accused DFAT of trying to derail the process. Our diplomatic standing was damaged in the region, and DFAT’s David Sadlier was left squirming in Senate Estimates as he was asked: ‘Did other delegates refer to the Australian delegates as weasels?’
In contrast, Pacific governments and citizens supported the process and successfully lobbied to include treaty provisions requiring assistance for survivors (no small matter in a region where people are living with the health and environmental consequences of more than 310 nuclear tests, in the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Australia and Johnston Atoll).
There are many realist critics of the new ban treaty in Australia, including John Carlson, former director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office. But when the UN Conference on Disarmament has been unable to agree on an agenda for more than 20 years, even Carlson has acknowledged the weakness of DFAT’s alternative: “Extolling a ‘step-by-step’ approach to disarmament lacks credibility when there are no such steps under way, or even being contemplated.”
Forum island countries are certainly aligned with Canberra in opposition to nuclear proliferation by North Korea. But Donald Trump’s threats of ‘fire and fury’ have reminded our Pacific neighbours of the failure of signatory states of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to meet their commitments under Article VI ‘to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective control’. The Marshall Islands have tried to use the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to prompt action by nuclear-weapon states. Their 2014 cases were unsuccessful, but a spooked United Kingdom withdrew from compulsory ICJ jurisdiction over matters relating to nuclear weapons, reluctant to have the Marshall Islands claims fully examined.
Australia’s ongoing ties to the Pacific are driven by geography and history. Pacific governments certainly welcome new openings on labour mobility and Australian security support for maritime surveillance, counterterrorism and transnational crime. But on a range of other political and security issues, there are fundamental differences.
This is why the ban treaty has struck a chord with Pacific islanders. As they’ve done with climate and oceans policy, Pacific governments are speaking in their own voice. Addressing the UN General Assembly last September, Pacific Islands Forum chair Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said:
“As a signatory to this historic treaty, we wanted to demonstrate unequivocally our aspiration to have a world without nuclear weapons. The conventional narrative that the possession of nuclear weapons will act as a deterrent to make the world a safer place to live is not borne out by the current realities — otherwise, the developments in the Korean peninsula would not have happened at all.”
Does that sound like a man who’s going to let Australian governments define a regional security community based on extended nuclear deterrence?
– Nic Maclellan
Nic Maclellan is a correspondent with Islands Business magazine (Fiji). His latest book, Grappling with the bomb — a history of British nuclear testing in Kiribati — has just been published by ANU Press.